Today is the 69th birthday of the National Health Service, a much-lauded institution in Britain which has become a national treasure synonymous with Westminster, the BBC and James Bond.
It was established in 1948 largely thanks to the efforts of Labour Health Minister Aneurin Bevan; but it was also a hangover from experience of state-control during the Second World War when the Conservatives were in power, and the by-product of the Beveridge Report that was spearheaded by a Liberal MP. From its outset the NHS was a national, cross-party institution.
Over the last 69 years, however, it has become the lynchpin of social democratic politics in Britain, and therefore the pride and glory of the Labour Party. This has happened to such an extent that all other parties are demonised for its failures, “privatisation” has become a misunderstood and dirty word, and consensus has prevented reform. We no longer look for innovative solutions, but try and pay our way out through more taxes and more spending. Meanwhile, lives are lost, and the living – though richer than ever before – are increasingly susceptible to “mental health” issues.
This leaves the NHS in a completely different state from the one it was founded in. It was created with three core principles: meeting the needs of everyone, being free at the point of delivery and based on clinical need rather than the ability to pay. This was a well-earned reward for a population that spent decades on war-footing, in some cases destitute, and in all cases in need.
But the simple truth is that Britain is a radically different country from the one it was in 1948: on the whole, British citizens are richer, older and abler. We have the luxury of living in eternal peacetime. And thanks to the decline of Christianity, British people no longer want eternal life but the good life. Collectively, we have more means at our disposal and carte blanche to live as good a life as we choose; and to become more obese, more dependent on the NHS, and more unhappy.
And so what was once a Health Service is becoming a Health Warning. NHS trusts are running huge deficits just to keep afloat; hospital wards are by all accounts overcrowded and can no longer meet clinical need; while its workforce is overworked, underpaid and heavily reliant upon migrant labour. National, health and service no longer feature much in the NHS.
Shouldn’t we therefore take more responsibly for our health? The people that is – not the state. Of course, to say this would be considered heretical. But whilst it plays well to vaunt the NHS as the triumph of collectivism and the British spirit, this disguises its many, many shortcomings. So it’s time to put party politics aside in Britain, recognise that the state can and should no longer serve everyone, and learn from other countries about how a modern nation can be kept fit and healthy. Otherwise, honestly, there isn’t much to celebrate.